David Guba on the use and purpose of labels in the context of race and nationality.
I meant for this post to come out in the middle of the Rachel Dolezal debacle, but then Charleston happened and clouded my thoughts. It seemed self-indulgent to write about old news when we were all hurt and mad.
Charleston still weighs heavily upon my soul, but I think I might be able to articulate some ideas which have been rattling around my head. Ideas about race, privilege, color, and culture.
I’m multi-racial, the product of an American-born Filipino father and a half-Sicilian mother.
Mom identified as Sicilian, or more broadly, Italian. Growing up in Hawaii, my ethnic identity was fluid, malleable. While I was often called “white boy” growing up for speaking proper English, I was also nearly arrested in high school after being confused for a Puerto Rican kid named Lamont.
As an adult, I have been forced to wait in a DMV line for Spanish speakers, as my exotic, swarthy features apparently look to some people like I can’t possibly speak English.
Mainlanders often call me “Hawaiian”. I am not kanaka maoili, but kamaaina, born and bred in the tradewinds and rainbows. The Hawaiians have been treated horribly for the last 200 years, and I wouldn’t appropriate their cool without having claim to their ongoing suffering. That’s just not my bloodline. I’m okay with being called little-h hawaiian if that distinction is carefully made.
Black culture fits me—much of my politics and social ideas come from Black writers and thinkers. I grew up infused with Black music, but again, that simply isn’t who I am. I can appreciate and support Black people without pretending to be one.
I have no illusions that I am of White ancestry.
I affirm this. In fact, I don’t speak any Filipino languages, but I do speak Italian. And English. I’m working on Spanish, and eventually Portuguese. Given all that learning, the languages I speak will still be 100% European.
I was comfortable with “Asian” until about a year ago. Yes, I am Asian, but to most people, Asian means “Oriental”, which I am not. In British Commonwealth areas, Asian means Pakistani. My label should be for me, and if I’m honest, the label I’m most comfortable with, if I must use one, is Hispanic.
Many people use Hispanic and Latino interchangeably, and for most of the people to whom one of these labels is ascribed, the other is also correct. However, I don’t have Spanish blood.
I’m not transracial. I’m not claiming to be something I’m not. Hispanic means influenced by the culture and language of Spain, which the Philippine Archipelago surely fits—it was administered by Spain (with Mexican governors) for 400 years. The area my family name come from was not kept on as short a leash by the Spaniards. They were able to retain family names and much more of their pre-Columbian identity.
That being said, I am not a hybrid creature. I am a Filipino man and a Caucasian man.
I am both, and move through the boundaries of both identities fluidly. I will not “pick one”. It simply wouldn’t be honest. I will elaborate more on “codeswitching” or modifying manner of speech to match situations, some other time. Being in-between and nebulous let’s many cultures claim you, which allows them to let their guard down as if you were “one of them”.
I am proud of my family tree.
I want to honor every branch and twig, from Germans and Dutch who settled Harlem, to the Tennesseans who fought on both sides of the Civil War. If I am not in a crabby mood, but don’t have a solid 5 minutes to explain, I’ll say Hispanic.
Words are important. Words are nuanced and dense, they carry a weight disproportionate to their mass. Throughout history, words like “infidel”, “witch”, “Tutsi”, “Catholic”, “traitor”, and “queer”, among a multitude of others, have singled out people for heinous visitations of brutality, as we observed in Charleston.
Labels can be useful, as long as they aren’t reductionist and marginalizing.